When it comes to online shopping, there are a number of steps you can take to protect yourself against scam websites designed to fleece you of your hard-earned cash. But protecting yourself from bad customer service online is much harder, as I recently found out.
But before I start, a little background. It's fair to say I'm known for my love of pink. From handbags and shoes to gadgets, most things I own are a shade of cerise, bubblegum, blush or, at a push, plum. And my digital camera is no exception.
Exhibit A: the pink camera
Last year I swapped my aging Pentax for a Nikon S220... in pink, of course. I loved the little 10Mp camera, but unfortunately it met an untimely demise in November.
It came off worse in an incident featuring a night of overindulgence on the fizzy stuff, a long cab journey home and ingenious use of a handbag. I'll leave the details to your imagination.
Sadly, after much cleaning and being left to dry out in the airing cupboard, it was clear the Nikon was dead. So I put replacing it on my list of things to do once the Christmas festivities were out of the way.
I finally got round to re-ordering the camera. After trawling the web it became clear that a little known 'family company from Oxford' called The Digital Camera Company was offering the best price.
After researching the site to check it wasn't a scam, using some of Nominet's valuable advice, I started reading reviews on the service itself.
It became clear that The Digital Camera Company and another website, Camerabox.co.uk, were one and the same. About half of the reviews were good, while the other half were not exactly glowing.
However, most of the harsher reviews centered heavily on products not arriving on time, and most of them were ordered in December - around the time that the UK was falling apart because of a few flakes of snow. I shrugged that off as 'can't be helped'.
Risk, disappointment, boredom, anger
So believing myself to be taking a calculated risk, I went ahead and ordered the camera. Two days later I received a dispatch notice via email and last night, just a day later, the camera was in my possession.
Although there was one slight snag - it was black. Not pink.
A quick look on the site revealed that the customer service was closed, but I could send an email "for a quick response and our preferred method of contact".
However, by 11:30am this morning, I'd had no reply, so I called the customer services helpline.
After 15 minutes and several incidents of falling asleep listing to the droning voice telling me "your call is important to us", I was able to speak to someone.
She apologised and revealed the details I needed to send to the return departments to get the camera collected and a pink one dispatched.
I soon received an email from the returns deparment apologising for any inconvenience and that I had been "passed for a refund" and that I should return the camera to the included address (not freepost).
I'll admit I wasn't happy. It was their mistake and I was going to incur a charge. Plus, I didn't ask for a refund - I simply wanted exchange.
Stock check: unreliable
So I called the customer service again. After much 'heated discussion', it was agreed that they would refund the postage if I included a receipt. However, the camera was out of stock in pink, so I would have to make do with another colour.
Each product has a button underneath it, which flashes and screams 'Live Stock'. When I initially ordered the camera, there were four in stock, and a quick check after I received my dispatch email revealed that there were three in stock.
So imagine my surprise when I searched the Digital Camera Company site just now to discover that there are three pink versions of the camera in stock.
A third call to customer services revealed that they are "having problems with the Live Stock system, and we don't actually know how many are in stock". I subsequently cancelled the order with the Digital Camera Company and purchased the camera from another retailer, albeit not as cheaply.
Next page: Lessons learned >>
I know what you're all thinking: why don't I just keep the black camera? It's the same product and will do the same job, after all.
And yes, I'll admit my pink obsession is silly, and there's no real difference between the models. But surely the retailer should warn customers if it can't guarantee the stock?
Likewise, why did it take me three calls to customer services to discover the stock system isn't working? A quick note on the website would have made me less angry and less likely to take my business elsewhere.
Perhaps my pink obsession has got out of hand after all.
It's been a harsh lesson to learn, but perhaps I wasn't as savvy as I could have been. While I searched for reviews of the company online, there are other things I could have done to protect myself.
The bad reviews online should have been my first warning. Admittedly, while we're quick to document our negative customer service experiences, we're less likely to shout so much when we're happy with the service we received; but unhappy customers sometimes keep quiet too. For every consumer that's received bad customer service and is angry enough to let everyone know, there are plenty more that simply walk away and chalk it up to experience.
It's also worth checking a number of different sources - so as well as searching for reviews, check out online forums dedicated to customer service, such as PC Advisor's own ConsumerWatch forum. Try searching for the company and finding out what other users have to say.
Finally, if in doubt, pay extra and head to a trusted retailer - either one that's recommended by friends, or one you've used before.